The Glastonbury Thorn
Editor's Note: The following is a summary of information based on research conducted several years ago. The sources were lost. Following the summary are verbatim notes from William Hone and W. Carew Hazlitt.
In England, every year the Mayor of Glastonbury, Somerset and the vicar from the church of St John the Baptist cuts sprays from the world famous Glastonbury Thorn (also known as "The Holy Thorn of Glastonbury"). This is sent to the Queen for the Royal Table on Christmas Day, a continuation of a tradition which began in 1929 when King George V accepted a gift of "Winter Blossoms" from The Thorn.
According to tradition, following the crucifixion of Jesus, St Joseph of Arimathea was driven from his home and began a journey of conversion. He traveled first to Marseilles and then in 63 A.D., at the bidding of St. Philip, to Glastonbury in an attempt to bring Christianity to the Britons. Joseph was the owner of the tomb in which Jesus Christ's body lay from Good Friday till the third day, Easter.
Upon their arrival at Weary-all Hill (also known as Wirrial Hill], and tired from the journey, he and his 12 companions laid down to rest. As he did so, he thrust his staff into the hill. When he woke up, the staff had taken root and begun to grow . It flowers every Christmas and every spring. This became the site of the Glastonbury Abbey.
It is said that the original thorn was cut down by a Puritan soldier in 1653 (who, it is said, deemed it to be an object of superstition) - and was blinded when struck in the eye by a splinter. Numerous other versions of the destruction exist.
However, many cuttings were taken from it before its destruction. The current thorn on the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey is said to be a cutting from the original plant which was planted in secret after the original was destroyed.
Another explanation of the origin of the Glastonbury Thorn relates that a piece of the Crown of Thorns, put on Jesus' head before he was killed, was brought to England by Joseph of Arimathea and planted, growing into the hawthorn tree. By some accounts, Joseph also brought with him to Glastonbury the Holy Grail, the cup from which Christ drank at the Last Supper and the one used by Joseph to catch his blood as he hung on the cross.
Botanically, the Glastonbury Thorn is a hawthorn (Crataegus oxyacantha), which usually blooms only in the spring (and is therefore sometimes called the "May Tree"). Here, you can see a photograph of the Holy Thorn of Glastonbury (link opens in a new window at an external site, the Cardiff University Pagan Society). A book about the Thorn is titled "The Flowering Hawthorn" by Hugh Ross Williamson (New York: Hawthorn Books, Inc., 1962; 102 pages).
Glastonbury Abbey is also said to be the burial spot of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere.
Editor's Note: The following entry is from William Hone, The Every Day Book, 2 Vols. London: William Tegg, 1825, 1827 (Volume 1, December 24):
On Christmas-eve, (new style) 1753, a vast concourse of people attended the noted thorn, but to their great disappointment there was no appearance of its blowing, which made them watch it narrowly the 5th of January, the Christmas-day, (old style,) when it blowed as usual.
On the same evening, at Quainton, in Buckinghamshire, above two thousand people went, with lanterns and candles, to view a blackthorn in that neighbourhood, and which was remembered to be a slip from the famous Glastonbury thorn, and that it always budded on the 24th, was full blown the next day, and went all off at night. The people finding no appearance of a bud, it was agreed by all, that December 25 (new style) could not be the right Christmas-day, and accordingly refused going to church, and treating their friends on that day as usual: at length the affair became so serious, that the ministers of the neighbouring villages, in order to appease them, thought it prudent to give notice, that the Old Christmas-day should be kept holy as before.1
This famous hawthorn, which grew on a hill in the church-yard of Glastonbury abbey, it has been said, sprung from the staff of St. Joseph of Arimathea, who having fixed it in the ground with his own hand on Christmas-day, the staff took root immediately, put forth leaves, and the next day was covered with milk-white blossoms. It has been added, that this thorn continued to blow every Christmas- day during a long series of years, and that slips from the original plant are still preserved, and continue to blow every Christmas-day to the present time.
There certainly was in the abbey churchyard a hawthorn-tree, which blossomed in winter, and was cut down in the time of the civil wars: but that it always blossomed on Christmas-day was a mere tale of the monks, calculated to inspire the vulgar with notions of the sanctity of the place. There are several of this species of thorn in England, raised from haws sent front the east, where it is common. One of our countrymen, the ingenious Mr. Millar, raised many plants from haws brought from Aleppo, and all proved to he what are called Glastonbury thorns. This exotic, or eastern thorn, differs from our common hawthorn in putting out its leaves very early in spring, and flowering twice a year; for in mild seasons it often flowers in November or December, and again at the usual time of the common sort; but the stories that are told of its budding, blossoming, and fading on Christmas-day are ridiculous, arid only monkish legends.2
Notes from Hone:
1. Gentleman’s Magazine. Return
2. Communicated by D. B. C. from Boswell's Antiquities of England and Wales. Return
Editor's Note: The following entry is from W. Carew Hazlitt, Faith and Folklore: A Dictionary of National Beliefs, Superstitions and Popular Customs, Past and Current, With Their Classical and Foreign Analogues, Described and Illustrated. Forming A New Edition of "The Popular Antiquities of Great Britain" By Brand and Ellis, Largely Extended, Corrected, Brought Down To The Present Time, and Now First Alphabetically Arranged. In Two Volumes. London: Reeves and Turner, 1905. Vol. 1, pp. 275-76.
Collinson, speaking of Glastonbury, says: "Southwest from the town is Wearyall Hill, an eminence so-called (if we will believe the monkish writers) from St. Joseph and his companions sitting down here, all weary with their journey. Here St. Joseph struck his stick into the earth, which, although a dry hawthorn stick, thenceforth grew, and constantly budded on Christmas-Day. It had two trunks or bodies till the time of Queen Elizabeth, when a Puritan exterminated one, and left the other, which was the size of a common man, to be viewed in wonder by strangers; and the blossoms thereof were esteemed such curiosities by people of all nations, that the Bristol merchants made a traffick of them, and exported them into foreign parts. In the Great Rebellion, during the time of King Charles I., the remaining trunk of this tree was also cut down: but other trees from its branches are still growing in many gardens of Glastonbury and in the different nurseries of this kingdom. It is probable that the monks of Glastonbury procured this tree from Palestine, where abundance of the same sort grew, and flower about the same time. Where this thorn grew is said to have been a nunnery dedicated to St. Peter, without the Pale of Weriel Park, belonging to the Abbey, it is strange to say how much this tree was sought after by the credulous; and though a common thorn, Queen Anne, King James, and many of the nobility of the realm, even when the times of monkish superstition had ceased, gave large sums of money for small cuttings from the original." Somersetshire, ii., 265.
I have no doubt but that the early blossoming of the Glastonbury Thorn was owing to a natural cause. It is mentioned by Gerard and Parkinson in their herbals. Camden also notices it. Ashmole tells us that he had often heard it spoken of, "and by some who have seen it whilst it flourished at Glastonbury." He adds: "Upon St. Stephen’s Day, Anno 1672, Mr. Stainsby (an ingenious enquirer after things worthy memorial) brought me a branch of hawthorne having green leaves, faire buds, and full flowers, all thick and very beautiful, and (which is more notable) many of the hawes and berries upon it red and plump, some of which branch is yet preserved in the plant booke of my collection. This he had from a hawthorne tree now growing at Sir Lancelote Lake’s house, near Edgworth (Edgeware) in Middlesex, concerning which, falling after into the company of the said knight 7 July, 1673, he told me that the tree, whence this branch was plucked, grew from a slip taken from the Glastonbury Thorn about sixty years since, which is now a bigg tree, and flowers every winter about Christmas." Appendix to Hearne’s Antiquities of Glastonbury, p. 303. Sir Thomas Browne remarks: " Certainly many precocious trees, and such as spring in the winter, may be found in England. Most trees sprout in the fall of the leaf or autumn, and if not kept back by cold and outward causes, would leaf about the solstice. Now if it happen that any be so strongly constituted as to make this good against the power of winter, they may produce their leaves or blossoms at that season, and perform that in some singles which is observable in whole kinds: as in ivy, which blossoms and bears at least twice a year, and once in the winter: as also in Furze, which flowereth in that season." "This tree," says Worlidge, "flourished many years in Wilton Garden, near Salisbury, and, I suppose, is there yet; but is not altogether so exact to a day as its original from whence it came was reported to be; it’s probable the faith of our ancestors might contribute much towards its certainty of time. For imagination doth operate on inanimate things, as some have observed." Systema Horticultura, 1677, p. 88.
In the metrical life of Joseph of Arimathea, probably written in the reign of Henry VII., three hawthorns are mentioned
Lyfe of Joseph of Arimathea, 1520, sig. B 2. Dr. Leighton, writing to Cromwell about 1537, says : "Pleesith it your worship to understand that yester night we came from Glastonbury to Bnistow? I here send you for relicks two flowers wrapped up in black sarcenet, that on Christmas even will spring and burgen, and bear flowers." Manningham, in his Diary, May 2, 1602, records, apparently as something of which he had heard, that "At Glastenbury there are certaine bushes which beare May flowers at Christmas and in January."
A writer in the "World" has the following irony on the alteration of the stile in 1752: "It is well known that the correction of the Calendar was enacted by Pope Gregory the thirteenth, and that the Reformed Churches have, with a proper spirit of opposition, adhered to the old calculation of the Emperor Julius Cæsar, who was by no means a Papist. Nearly two years ago the Popish Calendar was brought in (I hope by persons well affected). Certain it is that the Glastonbury Thorn has preserved its inflexibility, and observed its old anniversary. Many thousand spectators visited it on the parliamentary Christmas Day — not a bud was to be seen! — on the true nativity it was covered with blossome. One must be an infidel indeed to spurn at such anthority." Paper of March 5, 1753.
The following account was communicated to the "Gentleman’s Magazine" for January, 1753, by a correspondent at Quainton, in Buckinghamshire: "Above two thousand people came here this night with lanthorns and candles, to view a black thorn which grows in this neighbourhood, and which was remembered (this year only) to be a slip from the famous Glastonbury Thorn that always budded on the 24th, was full blown the next day, and went all off at night; but the people finding no appearance of a bud, ‘twas agreed by all, that Dec. 25th, N.S. could not be the right Christmas Day, and accordingly refused going to church, and treating their friends on that day as usual: at length the affair became so serious, that the ministers of the neighbouring villages, in order to appease the people, thought it prudent to give notice, that the old Christmas Day should be kept holy as before. A vast concourse of people attended the noted thorns at Glastonbury on Christmas Eve, new style; but to their great disappointment, there was no appearance of its blowing, which made them watch it narrowly the 5th of January, the Christmas Day old style, when it blowed as usual.’’
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